Civilisations, Episode 2: How Do We Look?

Civilisatons Episode 2
Picture Shows: Presenter Mary Beard with the Olmec Head (Monument 4) (c. 900 – 400 BCE) - Villahermosa, Mexico. Image Credit: BBC/Nutopia.

The second episode in the series sees classicist Mary Beard looking at how art depicts people.

It begins and ends by looking into the art of the Olmec, the first civilisation in Mexico, but perhaps not surprisingly most of the content of the episode covers the Greeks and the Romans. Beard actually starts with Egypt, but this also has a connection with the Romans as Emperor Hadrian came to see some statues that sang, and his lady-in-waiting vandalised the statues by carving into it a written description of what they encountered.

Beard also takes us on a visit to the Terracotta Army in China, but most of the programme looks at Greek statues, in particular the differences between the earlier works and the later “Greek Revolution” featuring what we would consider to be the classic archetype of Greek statues.

While much of this episode feels like it is being too dominated by the classic period that Beard normally covers, there is a reason for this. Beard argues that the statues of the revolution lose their directness of their predecessors, gives a male ideal of the female body, and talks about a statue of a man made love to a statue of Aphrodite which she describes as rape. Later art historians glorified such artworks to the point that we westerners seem to unfairly judge all art globally by it.

In comparison to the first episode, this one felt like a duller because it was coverage civilisations that most people know about, but by the time Beard got more into her arguments about how the revolution has affected the way we look at art in way that’s unfair on art from elsewhere across the globe, it had more depth to it.

Civilisations is on BBC Two at 21.00.